Interconnected

Filtered for mammals

1.

The memetic history of medieval elephants:

After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe. Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature.

This is a tree diagram covering 700 years of imagined elephants.

I am in love.

2.

If cancer can strike any cell, then why don't larger animals (with more cells) get cancer more than smaller ones? Peto's paradox: the incidence of cancer in humans is much higher than the incidence of cancer in whales. This is despite the fact that a whale has many more cells than a human.

Why? One possibility: hypertumors.

A novel hypothesis resolving Peto's paradox: since cancer cells are predisposed to be aggressive, maybe mutant cancers appear in the cancers that then grow as a tumor on their parent tumor, creating a hypertumor that damages or destroys the original.

And:

In larger organisms, tumors need more time to reach lethal size, so hypertumors have more time to evolve.

In smaller animals, hypertumors don't have time to emerge, so cancer incidence is higher.

3.

News from 1929:

[Professor] Wever and [research assistant] Bray took an unconscious, but alive, cat and transformed it into a working telephone to test how sound is perceived by the auditory nerve.

The cat telephone.

Here's how: A telephone wire was attached to the nerve and the other end of the wire was connected to a telephone receiver. Bray spoke into the cat's ears; Wever listened from a soundproofed room 60 feet away.

The original paper from 1930 states that speech was transmitted with great fidelity. Alas no clue on the first words spoken over the cat telephone.

(Even more alas for the cat, who didn't come through the procedure alive.)

The first words spoken over the Chappe telegraph system, which later covered Napoleonic France with over 500 stations, on March 2, 1791: If you succeed, you will bask in glory.

4.

Trotify. A device that attaches to your bicycle and makes it sound like a horse.

Filtered for non-human earths

1.

Ice age Eurasia was not a human world. Cave bears and the Upper Paleolithic: The longest war ever fought by humans was not fought against other humans, but against another species -- Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear.

Unlike human beings, cave bears probably could not have survived elsewhere ... The caves of ice age Eurasia were their world, and they spent enough time in these shelters that the walls of caves have a distinctive sheen that is called "Bärenschliffe"

Oh!

The "Bärenschliffe" are smooth, polished and often shining surfaces, thought to be caused by passing bears, rubbing their fur along the walls. These surfaces do not only occur in narrow passages, where the bear would come into contact with the walls, but also at corners or rocks in wider passages.

2.

Listen: For thousands of years in cultures all over the world the magic mushroom or psilocybe cubensis has been used by humans.

And: It is possible the psilocybe mushrooms evolved their ability to interface with animal consciousness to give them a unique look at all the information their brains typically disregard. The mushroom can inspire higher thought and evolution.

What if - hear me out on this - what if

it is possible the mushroom originated somewhere else in the universe forming symbiotic relationships with other species. Species all over the universe may find common ground in this higher consciousness symbiotically obtained from the same mushrooms. Maybe these alien species leave behind spores all over the universe, or perhaps the spores traverse space themselves.

More: Magic mushrooms or ancient aliens?

3.

Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin is an archaeology of the future. This is an excellent review.

It’s a compendium of poems, linguistic studies, personal narrative and religious observations (with an original cosmology) about the Kesh, a society in far-future California living a kind of new Bronze Age utopia.

Anyway, much poetry.

And buried right in the middle of this book is the revelation that the Earth is also populated by a network of post-singularity artificial intelligences, Yaivkach, the City of Mind:

Some eleven thousand sites all over the planet were occupied by independent, self-contained, self-regulating communities of cybernetic devices or beings -- computers with mechanical extensions. This network of intercommunicating centers formed a single entity, the City of Mind. ... It appears that an ever-increasing number were located on other planets or bodies of the solar system, in satellites, or in probes voyaging in deep space.

And:

Its observable activity was entirely related to the collection, storage, and collation of data

Which is what it does.

They seem not to have interfered in any way with any other species.

There’s a kind of information exchange, mediated by special sites called Exchanges.

Le Guin has put the chapter about the City of Mind online. It’s short and an interesting read, one view of what it might be to cohabit our planet with an intelligence that no longer cares about us. Here: Yaivkach: The City of Mind.

4.

Going through some of my old notes, I found this paragraph from the Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins:

Janzen (1977) faces up to the same difficulty, suggesting that a clone of dandelions should be regarded as one 'evolutionary individual' (Harper's genet), equivalent to a single tree although spread out along the ground rather than raised up on the air on a trunk, and although divided up into separate physical 'plants' (Harper's remets). According to this view, there may be as few as four individual dandelions competing with each other for the territory of the whole of North America.

Emphasis mine.

With GE and Juicero, the Internet of Things world has taken a battering this week

It's been a rough week for business and the Internet of Things.

Industrial IoT

On the industrial IoT end of things, GE - which has bet on "digital industrial" in a big way - has scaled back its target revenue in this space from $15 billion in 2020 to $12 billion. With industrial IoT we’re talking applications like remote monitoring of wind turbines, improved construction equipment utilisation, and smart power grids.

Even GE’s adjusted numbers are massive, but as Stacey Higgenbotham's analysis explains, the adjustment shows that industrial IoT isn't a problem that can be tackled as a horizontal platform play. She gives a couple of related examples, including

Samsara, a startup that formed in 2015, aimed to build a wide-scale industrial IoT platform that started with generic sensors. It has since narrowed its focus to fleet monitoring and cold-chain assurance, which is how some of the earliest users of its product used it.

For me, this is a healthy shift. The technology behind the sharp, physical end of the Internet of Things is stabilising but still in flux. And I mean everything: data centres, connectivity, monitoring tools, security, provisioning standards, and so on. For a company like GE, building platforms in a fast-changing platform ecosystem is a long way from core competency, and not a good place to be.

Instead, as I've said before, focus on applications. Provide real business value with whatever platform tools are at hand, and leave room to hop technology as and when.

Consumer IoT

Widely mocked startup Juicero is shutting down. Juicero raised $120MM to sell a $400 home juicer. Not any fruit; only proprietary Juicero packets. Using IoT technology to keep the consumer channel open, the projected lifetime value must have been enticing to investors. But the product made a number of missteps: a little too keen to tap that recurring revenue, it wouldn't work without wi-fi.

Despite this news, I remain convinced that

  • the smart home is interesting again now the platform wars are over
  • connected products should be seen as channels open for constant communication between the brand and consumer: in the future, all FMCG brands will be like Nespresso

However, we can take some lessons.

If the Juicero juicer is really a channel, not a product per se, shouldn't it have been managed by a brand strategist -- someone sensitive to the latent meaning of the product features (and anti-features) for the audience, and their impact? My hunch is that, with just a couple of small changes, Juicero would have felt high-value rather than money-grubbing.

Marketing matters!

(And if you need to be convinced, read Russell Davies on the iPhone TV ads and his concept of pre-experience design.)

With my startup hat on, I can see the reason to charge for the machine. For the consumer however it's simply paying to have the privilege of paying more. There's an equitable balance to be found, I'm sure, but maybe this the best it gets for business models in consumer IoT: there are nice businesses to be built (maybe even at scale like Nespresso), but they will always be a hard slog and never have the margins of a pure software play.

But but but. I remain positive:

As the Reverend of Revenue says, profitability means you can own your own destiny. Could Juicero have sought to build a business that worked small and allowed it to fund its own growth? And on that platform, for hardware startups, could there be discovered the scale of the non-hardware Silicon Valley-style startups? That was the Amazon playbook, after all.

Enterprise IoT

The ideal business model for consumer IoT remains elusive.

I ran the R/GA IoT Venture Studio earlier this year centred around what we dubbed Enterprise IoT, that sweet-spot which offers real business value like industrial IoT, but with the productised scalability - and faster route to market - of consumer.

The native business model of Enterprise IoT is hardware-enabled SaaS. The software-as-a-service mindset is cribbed from the online world, and it's not just a pricing model but a whole set of techniques about marketing, pricing, metrics, and growth. It's neat because it means recurring revenue, and that matches the cadence of the recurring operating costs necessary for these kind of server-heavy data businesses.

What "hardware-enabled" means is that although the hardware is necessary (it's a sensor, or a camera, or whatever), it's not core. It can be commodity. To take two examples from the recent Venture Studio, we worked with Winnow which is enabled with a smart food waste bin in the commercial kitchen, but provides ongoing value (and charges monthly for) the intelligence that produces. And Hoxton Analytics which monitors pedestrian footfall using machine learning. It uses commodity web-connected cameras (from Cisco) but, again, is primarily a data play providing ongoing value.

I’ve seen close-up how these hardware startups are able to focus on their true differentiation -- which isn’t the hardware.

Another benefit of this model is that these startups have customer retention literally bolted to the wall, yet they’re able to sidestep the friction and risk of custom hardware development and batch production.

Back to consumer

So if hardware-enabled SaaS is the model for Enterprise IoT, could there be a similar flip for consumer?

My instinct is that there's a freemium-like model to be found. Popularised by LinkedIn, freemium was the realisation that - with a digital service - 5% paying of a massive customer base is better than 100% of a tiny one.

This wouldn't quite the same for consumer, but imagine a fictional Juicero (to stick with that example) that was a great juicer for any fruit -- and also the ability to "upgrade" to a hassle-free monthly subscription of more exotic juice packets.

Of course LinkedIn innovated on both revenue and distribution simultaneously. It wouldn't have worked without the viral traversing of your address book. Consumer IoT hasn't yet discovered its virality, and that's a challenge.

Where next?

Conspicuous setbacks like those above damage confidence in the Internet of Things, but they're part of the process and it's important to learn from them.

IoT is an enabler, not a feature. Like machine learning, it's an interoperating set of technologies and approaches that opens doors in all kinds of sectors. For IoT, the immediate value is in bringing the dividends of the 50 year digital boom right into the real world.

This is a challenge for the business world (for corporates, for investors, and for founders) because there's no guarantee that (a) existing business practices will remain intact; or, (b) lessons learnt about the Internet of Things in one sector will translate to a second.

So what to do if you're in that world? Watch, learn, experiment, and share. It’s how we get through the idea maze together.

What Blade Runner is about, and the Narcissist Creator Razor

Everyone has a pet theory about Blade Runner, and I want to tell you mine. Spoiler: Blade Runner is about Blade Runner. Or rather, it's about creating Blade Runner. I reckon many films and books make more sense seen this way: creatives are narcissists, and creative works are commentaries on the act of creation.

Star Wars

Ok. Let's start with an easy one. In Star Wars, what is the Force? This 2005 article in Slate hits the nail on the head:

the characters come to understand that there is another agent, external to themselves, that is dictating the action. Within the films' fiction, that force is called ... er, "the Force." It's the Force that makes Anakin win the pod race so that he can get off Tatooine and become a Jedi and set all the other events in all of the other films in motion. We learn that Anakin's birth, fall, redemption, and death are required to "bring balance to the Force" and, not coincidentally, to give the story its dramatic shape.

There's a tension for an author between doing what the characters and internal logic of the universe demand, and doing what the reader or viewer demands: moving the story forward, keeping attention through cliffhangers and long story arcs, surprising but not subverting the genre, and so on. It's a balance.

At its worst, when plot beats sense, blunders are easily observed as called out as "deus ex machina" and MacGuffins. At best, the story feels completely natural.

I've read that Pixar consider three foundational elements, and each has to make sense in the context of the previous: the world, then the characters, then the narrative. If there is trouble resolving the story, the characters (or even the world) may have to change. This loopback is how the eventual whole feels so complete, immersive and organic.

That Star Wars article continues:

The Force is, in other words, a metaphor for, or figuration of, the demands of narrative. The Force is the power of plot.

The Force is another way of bridging the needs of the world and the needs of the narrative: it's an in-fiction concretisation of the gap itself. The relationship between the characters and the Force - that is, the prophecies and the balance - is an examination by the author into this gap.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The monolith in 2001 is, like the Force, a catalytic agent: it turns the apes into humans, and takes modern day humans through another evolution and brings about the Star Child.

As has been pointed out, the monolith is the cinema screen, and this idea has been well explored. The proportions are the same; it transforms the in-fiction characters just as it mysteriously transforms the audience.

So in the films opening and during the intermission, we are not looking at an empty black screen at all. We are looking directly at the surface of the monolith! The monolith is the film screen and it is singing directly at its audience in the same way that the apes and astronauts are entranced by its heavenly voice, not realising that they are being communicated with directly

But for me, 2001 (the movie) is an exploration of the relationship between the director and the audience, with the in-world characters making the examination by glimpsing, from their side, this boundary: the screen/monolith.

There's the famous shot of the aligned planets: this conjunction only makes sense from the perspective of the viewer, but there's no viewer present in space at this point... except, suddenly, the audience. So the audience is forcibly inserted; given a location in the in-world universe.

The boundaries are blurred again when a shot on the Moon brings the monolith (as Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One) - black, indistinguishable from the dark room of the cinema - from the edge of the screen, again pulling the audience's environment into the film. An equivalent is made between the audience's world and the agent of change in the in-fiction world.

Which is of course true: the fiction-world only lives while the film plays, while the literal film is projected. The characters reaction to the embodiment of that (the monolith) is as spiritual and ineffable as ours would be, encountering our own agent of reality.

Arrival

Sticking with science fiction, Arrival (2016) - which is a gorgeous, beautifully paced movie, and you should definitely see it - gets into playing with time.

Spoilers, obviously, so let me summarise: aliens land, and their language is somehow outside time. They apprehend the past and future as one, fitting together into a cohesive whole. A human - a woman - learning their language, finds she can now do the same.

As a film this makes a cracking story. As the short story on which it was based (Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang) it's a classic. The story of the title is both the in-fiction story of the woman's daughter, and the short story in the reader's hand. The alien's ability to apprehend all of time at once (but also be within it, yet without the capacity to change what happens) is the reader's perspective too.

Chiang is using his protagonist as an agent to examine whether it's possible to break through from the inner reality of the fiction to the outer reality of the reader.

Greg Egan

This section is kinda obscure, so feel free to skip. But before you do: you should read these Egan novels because otherwise you'll be missing some of the best, most robust hard sci-fi of the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Greg Egan is an Australian author and computer programmer. The kind of author who, when he invents in a story a game called quantum soccer where the players move a ball which is a quantum mechanical probabilistic wave function, and scoring a goal means manipulating the probability of the "ball" such that it is (probably) in one of the goals, he then goes ahead and builds a simulation of the game playable on his website. The kind of author who works out the equations for a rock in orbit around a black hole, and then has to invent new words to describe new directions because space gets all mixed up under the extreme regime of general relativity.

Three of his early novels are investigations of what it means to be human, and how human-ness is conserved across greater and greater extreme translations from the flesh and the everyday. For me these three sit together as a trilogy: Permutation City, Schild's Ladder, and Diaspora. They're surprisingly easy reading, and have that magical characteristic of boiling frog gentle escalation where every single step makes individual sense but you look behind you at the end and all you can say is "holy shit how did we end up here." (Like Apocalypse Now where you get to the end and all you can think was, hang on weren’t we just surfing.)

This is only going to make sense if you've read them, but my contention is that each book is about the characters of the inner reality probing and attempting to understand the outer reality. And the outer reality, in this case, is not only the reader's world, but the actual physical book in the reader's hands, paper pages and all.

Consider:

  • In Permutation City, the demonstration that intelligence is shown, in the inner reality, to be robust against the shuffling of time (or: the reader or author jumping between pages)
  • In Diaspora, that life is equivalent regardless of the in-fiction substrate, and consider also the characteristics of movement between universes: movement is easier forward than backwards, and in-fiction life can even be spread in static slices across too many universes to count, time advancing with each universe crossed. Universes being pages, of course.
  • In Schild's Ladder, the bubble universe is a representation of the book itself: when the characters encounter it, the frontier is so wide the edges can't be seen. Yet, tunnelling into it, it forms layers that are extremely thin. It's as if the characters had become able to see themselves on the flatland of the page, and found themselves able to tunnel through pages (layers of the bubble universe) along with the reader reading.

If our own universe was actually a book, that was written, isn't this how we would attempt to understand the outer reality -- piecemeal, and never completely? In fact, with our enormous particle colliders and speculation about the universe being a holographic projection of a pattern on a bubble surface, and trying to find ways we might test that, isn't that what's happening now?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

In fiction, there are three times. The time of the inner reality, of the fiction, of the characters. The time of the reader or audience. And the time of the author. These times don't only vary in pace, but may be ordered differently. They may repeat, or not. They have differing agency over what is real.

This is fertile ground for exploration.

Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead follows two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, between scenes and interleaving the original Hamlet itself.

It opens with the two characters asking themselves whether they are doomed to have the same conversation again and again. Well yes, they do in the play. But they do in another sense, in the outer reality, because the play has a nightly performance.

They ask each other whether they remember what happened before. Was there a before? For the character, kinda: the character has a memory and a backstory, but if the audience didn't see it, did it really happen? And there is definitely a "before" for the actor playing the character.

We'll come back to Ros and Guild. They're replicants.

Hamlet

So Stoppard's play is a play exploring what it means to be a play. It's built on good source material: Shakespeare was exploring the same ideas with Hamlet.

First, yes, the famous play within a play at the heart of Hamlet. A recursion like the monolith representing the cinema screen being shown on the screen.

Secondly, and mainly, the ghost.

Hamlet is a clever, wonderful, tightly told, and above all realistic play. The story unfolds from the internal drives of, and feelings between, the characters. There are few coincidences, no deus ex machina. It's insightful and subtle, and derives from details in the depths of the human condition. It feels true.

But at the beginning - the domino that kicks off the whole sequence of events - there is the ghost of Hamlet's father. You what? This isn't just Prince Hamlet's wild imagination. The guards see the ghost too. This is, right upfront in an obstinately real story, the presence of the supernatural, driving the narrative.

Sounds like the Force.

And, get this: According to oral tradition, the Ghost was originally played by Shakespeare himself.

How's that for a statement on how the inner reality relates to the author from the outer reality!

Back to Blade Runner

The ambiguity about Blade Runner is whether Deckard, the replicant hunter, is himself a replicant. Are his memories real, or has he been instantiated with a remembered past borrowed from elsewhere; will he - like other replicants - live only for a brief time, just four years? Or is he human?

There's a solid theory that Deckard is a replicant with Gaff's memories. Gaff being a detective who makes origami that mysteriously mirrors Deckard's dreams, indicating that he has special access to Deckard's inner life.

What makes the Blade Runner ambiguity so delicious is that in the released 1982 theatrical cut, Deckard's replicant identity is ambiguous. In the later director's cut, all the hints are inserted. We get to choose, and the fact that it's still debated which the "true" cut is (the one with the bigger audience? Or the one the director wanted us to see?) enlarges the ambiguity to ask who gets to determine reality.

But what happens if we apply the Narcissist Creator Razor? The answer becomes that Blade Runner is simply about the act of making Blade Runner. The fictional inner reality isn't about the story, it's about the reality of the maker. And what is that reality? This:

The reality of Blade Runner is this: Deckard isn't a human, and Deckard isn't a replicant. Deckard is a sequence of recorded images of Harrison Ford saying lines written by someone else. The story is an exploration of that fact.

Replicants are characters

Here's Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter of the West Wing, A Few Good Men, and much more) talking about characters and backstory:

Your character, assuming your character is 50 years old, was never six years old, or seven years old or eight years old. Your character was born the moment the curtain goes up, the moment the movie begins, the moment the television show begins, and your character dies as soon as it's over. ... Characters and people aren't the same thing. They only look alike.

That's what's being explored in Blade Runner. Characters look like people, except they exist for only the duration of a movie -- only while they are necessary. They come with backstory and memories fully established but never experienced, partly fabricated for the job and partly drawn from real people known by the screenwriter. At the end, they vanish, like tears in rain.

Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Like replicants.

Roy knows he is a replicant. He's the one who comes closest to understanding his true nature: that his memories were given to him, that when the short span of the film passes he'll be gone. He's coming to terms with his emotions about this in a short period - his journey as a replicant but also as a character in a film - in a way that no one else does. The Off-World Colonies - Roy's point of origin and source of memories but never seen - are a stand-in for the inaccessible outer reality of the creator.

Deckard is a character. Roy is a character. Gaff is a character.

So that’s what Blade Runner is about, for me: it’s an examination of what it means to be a character. It’s a creator using their creation to examine the nature of that creation.

(This is also why I don’t like the idea of the Blade Runner sequel. It risks the delicate balance of audience vs creator, and inner vs outer reality, and I think we might lose access to a very interesting place because of that.)

I am aware, by the way, that proposing a totalising general theory of all creative work is an utterly ludicrous thing to do. But to hedge the above appropriately would have added too many words, and this is long enough already.

Gratitude and a possibly inappropriate technological intervention

I was reading Melanie Klein's Envy and Gratitude and Other Works (which I still haven't finished) and there's something about Kleinian gratitude which is crucial in developing the primal relationship between mother (the good object) and child. It is also the basis for the child perceiving goodness in others and herself.

Conscious gratitude seems to be more focused on the other, rather than a self-centred idea of being the cause of goodness or its reverse. Developing gratitude might allow for greater capacity for appreciation, acceptance, and the sharing of love.

Gratitude is inherently outwards looking. And surprisingly hard! It touches all kinds of other feelings like deservedness, and is easily corrupted with responses like entitlement.

So I was thinking: a habit of gratitude would be an interesting thing to foster. Gratitude being a component of prayer, I know, but I don't pray. So. I need to get it somewhere else.

Anyway.

We can fix this with technology. I know, I know. Forgive me.

What I do is I have a folder in Ulysses, which is a writing app I have on my iPhone (and I use for everything). The folder is called: What I Am Grateful For.

Please also forgive the ugly dangling preposition. It upsets me too.

In that folder are tons of notes. Each note has a date, and a line of text: the thing I am grateful for that day. Sometimes big, mostly small. Sometimes easy to observe, sometimes really, really difficult. Always interesting to note when I’m going through a phase in which gratitude is a challenge to attain, and with what that correlates.

Back to the tech.

Once a day, at midday, I get a notification which says "What are you grateful for today?" I tap the notification, and a text box opens up on my phone. I type into the text box and it gets saved into the folder.

Here's how that bit of automation works:

  • I use an app called Workflow which links together different apps and lets you program them in a flowchart sort of way
  • I've written a particular workflow called "Grateful Daily" that does all the work of opening the text input box and saving it to Ulysses. You can get the workflow here. If you copy the workflow, you'll have to update the special Ulysses code bit to make sure it saves to the right folder
  • Another app called Launch Center Pro is able to trigger workflows on a timer. I have it set to run Grateful Daily at midday

Cross-app automation is a nascent but interesting area. I'm finding myself able to do pretty complex workflows from my phone now (I also have a process to edit and deploy code, using multiple different apps). It's got a way to go as a pattern of user behaviour, but I'd like to see iOS or Android take automation more seriously. To see where it could go. It has a different nature to automation on PCs, and I think there's the opportunity for these automation scripts to unbind from the smartphone and move into the cloud (somehow). Maybe use a bit more intelligence too. Centaur automation.

Yeah but so: gratitude.

To receive - and to be open to receiving! - something which is good, and to take in that goodness and to internalise it, but to also appreciate the goodness itself, and its source and the source’s reasons. A tricky business.

I don't even pretend to have even half a handhold on Klein, or Kleinian gratitude, or hell even gratitude, but her words opened something in me. (Thanks!)

A few technical words about Upsideclown, and some thoughts about audiences and the web

I also write stories over at Upsideclown, which is both a website and a small writing group. Well I should be careful about the present tense: I wrote there between 2000 and 2003, and I shortly will again. We recently resumed after a 14 year hiatus.

First time round we published twice a week. There are a ton of stories! We had a party for our readers! We self-published a book! Which back then was hard. I had to do layout in Quark and install a special printer driver that would send pages to a printing firm in Tennessee which could do short-run binding. Taking payments online to sell books was, well, I think we ended up mostly doing cash.

This time round it's lower-key: we're publishing once every two weeks. It's the same group of seven, so each of us comes round every three months and some. I'm enjoying seeing how our writing has changed and also how it hasn't.

Upsideclown is old-fashioned I suppose. I started it as an excuse to keep in touch with friends from uni. It’s me, plus Dan, George, Jamie, James, Neil, and Vic. And it's mostly about that plus of sprinkling of some useful pressure to keep my hand in writing fiction. It's not the central purpose but it's always nice to have readers so I do a little light promotion too. (Subscribe to the newsletter!)

It feels transgressive to have a website in 2017. Something about having a domain name and about coding HTML which is against the grain now. It's something big companies do, not small groups. We're supposed to put our content on Facebook or Medium, or keep our publishing to an email newsletter. But a website?

Technical details

Resuming 17 years after starting gives you a glimpse of the long now of the web.

There are pages I made - the first stories - that I haven't touched in almost two decades and they still work. Web-world that's pretty rare. They’ve outlasted most places that encourage you to host their content with them, and even the popularity curve of many programming languages and web frameworks. Database technologies have come and gone.

And then there's my own attention and ability... I no longer program for a living as I did when Upsideclown started. I keep in touch and still make the odd thing, but I've forgotten a ton. So I have a philosophy around choosing what tech to use when I’m building this stuff: will I be able to fix it, half drunk, ten years after I've lost all the tooling.

On the design side I’m pleased that when the design changed, I made sure the old stories kept the old design when the newer ones picked up the new one. Design changes meaning. A story would mean something else if I retroactively put it in a classy frame, or a punk frame, or added highlights.

So it's all about longevity and data. I rewrote everything for the reboot and here’s how it works now:

New Upsideclown stories are stored in Markdown because it's a simple format and, in another decade, when I’ve forgotten everything I know, I’ll be able to tell what I meant just by looking at it. Here's Neil's recent story as published. Here it is in the Markdown "source" format. No databases, it's all files.

Rendering is in PHP. Old school I know, but it's a language which has stood the test of time, and I can go from a standing start (seriously I hadn't coded with it for ten years) to a functional and decent looking site in a leisurely weekend. So if I need to rewrite I know I can. I'm not planning to: unless some burning desire strikes, not until 2034 at the earliest. It’s served with Apache, no app engine. I figure web servers will be around for the duration.

(I have the same approach with my blog: posts are text files and go back to February 2000. The publishing engine I've rewritten a few times.)

The reason the stories aren't kept in HTML is so I can publish out to other formats: there's an RSS version that is picked up by Mailchimp so readers can subscribe to the newsletter. The archive is dynamically generated.

I’m looking at whether to also generate Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, perhaps plug into Apple News too.

People don’t visit or link to websites like they used to.

You gotta fish where the fish are.

But you also want to be able to look back on what you’ve created once you’ve retired. So it’s a balance.

How web publishing has changed

I knew that publishing to the web was out of fashion. What I hadn’t realised was how much the tools had eroded. Or rather, two things: if you want to know how many people have read your stories, and where they came from, then (a) the analytics tools haven’t kept up with how and where people read; and, (b) the analytics tools are made for big companies optimising the flow of audiences down funnels to achieve particular goals. Not for small, independent publishers.

Here’s an example. There’s no simple online tool that lets me add up how many people have read a particular story on Upsideclown via the website, the RSS feed, and the email newsletter. Why not? If I add syndication to Facebook, Google, and Apple, I’m even more at sea.

This isn’t because I want to optimise an audience; this isn’t because I want to sell ads. This is because it’s nice to know that 17 people read the website and 21 people opened the newsletter, and 36 people read the same story on Facebook, and 6 in an RSS reader -- and gosh that’s like the whole top level of a double decker bus, all those people read my story! When companies deal with millions and billions, I think perhaps they forget how the intimate feels. How sometimes it’s not about a thousand retweets but instead about an audience of readers who come back. With whom you have a relationship. Who appreciate you, and you appreciate them. Yes it’s a pleasure to write, and yes I will do it without needing to get 1,000 likes on each and every story, but also let’s not forget that it’s more pleasant with company.

These likes, faves, and claps are cold. No wonder we need so many of them to feel sated. Instead I’d like to look at the depth and duration of meaningful relationships, and to share that with my fellow authors. I know analytics feels like a dirty word in this context, tarred as it is with A/B testing and e-commerce flows, but there’s a joy to be had in being on stage and seeing the faces of your audience — rapt. The erosion of tools for modern online publishing has, bizarrely, made the intimate audience invisible. What can we count so that we’re over the moon when there’s twenty of it? And simultaneously I’d like to make it easy for readers to read wherever they are, whether that’s the web, Facebook, email, or whatever. I can handle that last bit but Google Analytics doesn’t help me with the former. Nor does Medium.

Not without budging on my desire to make pages which I can still read in 2034, anyway. It seems to me that, sometime in the last 17 years, the web forgot the simple pleasure of making, and appreciating what’s made, together.

Two positive signals for the Smart Home

I'm bullish on the Smart Home, and as someone with a professional interest in the Internet of Things who was consumer-IoT-shy this time last year, I’ve been thinking about what changed my mind.

This isn’t a whitepaper, or a even a properly considered analysis: just some notes about where my head’s at and what I’m looking at. I’d appreciate feedback — both supporting points (especially pointers to UK startups who are taking advantage of these trends) and counter-examples. If I’m off-base I’d like to know!

Over the last couple years, the Smart Home has been getting a bad rap. Connected consumer products suffer for a bunch of reasons, including but not inclusively:

  • the sane products aren’t worth the money. Features for this generation of products are generally iterative not transformative: is it useful to remote-check your slower cooker. Sure. But at 5x the price, with the cognitive overhead of apps for everyone in the family, etc? Not so much. Many of the benefits become clear when there's a critical mass of products that can orchestrate and learn from one another
  • the category-busting products aren't acceptable in the market. Consumer behaviour is hard to shift, both for features and also for the business models required for connected hardware. Look at the outrage when a software application goes subscription-only; now think of how a subscription washing machine would go down
  • the barriers to entry are too high when you combine hardware and software. Shifting consumer behaviour is possible... but it takes a lot of experimentation on both ends. Hard to do when hardware is so expensive in small batch production, especially for a startup

All of that said, this year I'm getting excited about consumer Internet of Things again. There are a few trends that make it easier for the Smart Home to get out its slump, such as the ever-increasing acceptability of e-commerce and direct sales, which reclaims the retailer margin.

But two signals in particular.

The smart home platforms have finally given up their fight to own it all

The first signal is smart lighting from Ikea which both fulfils the promise of a low-cost modular system, and also has sane interaction design (that is: it includes physical controls and works when the internet is absent).

More importantly it works with a gamut of Smart Home controls: Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. This tells me that the GAFA stacks (aside: where is Facebook in the Smart Home?) have given up on their unrealistic desire to treat the home as a monolithic own-able platform. The layers are emerging: it will soon be possible for a startup to innovate on a new type of bulb without having to also break into the service layer (and yes, I've met companies with internet-connected bulbs showing a 10x life at comparable cost. Being able to plug-and-play HomeKit, Assistant, and Alexa would be a godsend for them).

At the service layer, it should also become possible to innovate on software and orchestration between devices: I look forward to services that are able to plug in to a smart home from a mix of manufacturers, providing highly specific and differentiated functionality. I think voice has a part to play here: it’s the excuse we’ve been looking for to put our phones down at home.

Interop is good news: more ways in for startups, more places to innovate, and better value for consumers.

Reference designs lower the barrier to innovating on features

The second signal is also a healthy emerging fracture point in the connected hardware stack: Qualcomm's reference designs, including this speaker platform. Reference designs allow for some interesting manufacturer efficiencies. A small company can go and ask for a customised version of this product, benefiting from a supply chain shared with other small companies, and with engineering costs amortised across the same.

The reference design linked above is for a smart speaker. A speaker is no longer just a speaker: it's a speaker with directional microphones, a wi-fi connection to a cloud somewhere, and enough on-board GPU to run a voice assistant, whether that's from Apple or Google. I'm interested to see what the equivalent reference designs are for a smart screen, smart doorlock, smart book, and so on.

If these appear, it will show that the consumer categories for smart products are stabilising. Categories are useful because they allow the rest of the industry to align: retail buyers can set up aisles; marketing educates the consumer; it becomes worthwhile for distributors to do their thing. With a baseline of many products in the same category, it becomes possible to experiment.

Critically reference designs provide an entry point to startups that lets them mimic Apple's business model: hardware differentiated by software. To date this has been inaccessible to startups because hardware development is a huge barrier to overcome before service innovation can begin (not to mention the challenge of distribution). The table stakes are, happily, coming down.

Overall the Internet of Things is going to see an interesting few years. The digital world has seen rapid change: Blockchain, A.I. (in a thousand forms), and next generation interfaces too: voice and augmented reality. The recently stabilised IoT tech stack is pretty solid: digital dividends should be coming into the real world much faster than before.

And then, maybe, finally, we’ll start seeing those category-busting transformative products that we’ve been waiting for.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Weds 5th

dink dink is this thing on

MY DEAREST DROOGS:

I hereby announce that I have been really busy all of 2017 so far and therefore there has been no hardware-ish coffee morning yet. So we're just going to write off the first half of the year. Just like that. Done.

Wednesday 5 July, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

What is a hardware-ish coffee morning? I barely remember, we'll have to make it up. As far as I remember: No intros, no presentations. We take over a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... We've had manufacturers, hardware startups, product-curious agency folks, a baby or two, diletantes and job hunters. Chatty chat chat.

Might be 5 people, might be 25, might be just me and my email. I'm betting on 12 people and you should believe me because I won £11.80 on there being a hung parliament and £15 on Trump getting in so I've got form. Feel especially welcome if you are NOT A DUDE because it's weird if it's tons of dudes.

Anything else? Don't think so. My blog was broken but I fixed it just to post this. See you on the 5th.

(As previously posted to the coffee morning announce list.)

Update:

A great turnout this morning! People who signed the register were Ed and Antton from Flock (pay-as-you-fly insurance for drones), Markus and Alex from product development and production firm RPD, Abigail and David of digital product agency Pixie Labs, and Kaye and Richard of crowdfunding launch assist agency Paved With Gold. It wasn’t all people doubling up. Some came along on their lonesome: brilliant to see Tom E from parenting hardware startup BleepBleeps with a production-run version of his new product (and a prototype of the next one), Tom A fresh from launching his DIY musical instruments project Foxfield, Tamar from Soda which is doing exciting things in retail and launching a concession in Selfridges (!!), plus Dan, Phil, and most importantly Deb who prompted this coffee morning reboot! (And I wonder whether this will prompt a reboot of her email newsletter Metafoundry…) 

Thanks for coming y’all!

Too many conversations to keep up with, but my particular morning included Snapchat Spectacles, how to keep time ring-fenced to contemplate the future, the pros and cons of showrooming, and Jeremy Bentham’s head.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 15th

Okay okay okay, let's have one more hardware-ish coffee morning to wrap up 2016...

Thursday 15 December, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... More info here.

Might be 5 people, might be 25, might be just me and my email. Feel especially welcome if you are NOT A DUDE because it's weird otherwise. All super relaxed and friendly. I'll bring Christmas crackers if I remember and we can all wear hats.

See you on the 15th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 10th

Time for a hardware-ish coffee morning...

Thursday 10 November, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... especially if you're interested in hardware, discovering spectacular new business models that make delivering hardware worth it (sigh), Kickstarter, how to get to manufacture, tinkering, etc, etc.

Sometimes there are four of us, sometimes 14. Once there were 24. All super relaxed and friendly. Come along!

(This coffee morning is on request. Somebody got in touch because they want to bring some early protos. Awesome!)

My secret agenda -- I'm heading up R/GA's newest startup program and we're investing in hardware and Internet of Things companies. I'm on the hunt for great startups. But if you're interested in the program, don't feel you need to come to this... coffee morning is about hanging out with everyone there, not about me. To talk program stuff, we can always Skype. Book a time here.

See you on the 10th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.